28 August 2007

The Drifters (Part Three)

Drifters Golden Hits

We Gotta Sing!
The Drifters On Broadway
1959-1966
by Donny Jacobs
After 1964, the year the British Invasion sent Rock music hurtling down separate Black and White train tracks, The Drifters' tradition of revolving-door membership would accelerate. However, the same talented tenor would hold down the lead singer spot for the next several decades.

The Johnny Moore Era

The Drifters
featuring Johnny Moore and Charlie Thomas

21 May 1964
A Bert Berns Production
Arranged by Mike Leander
Conducted by Teacho Wiltshire
Atlantic Studios, New York City
7922 Under The Boardwalk (Artie Resnick-Kenny Young)
7923 He's Just A Playboy - Key of E (Bert Berns)
7924 He's Just A Playboy - Key of G (Bert Berns)
7925 I Don't Want To Go On Without You (Bert Berns-Jerry Wexler)

Originally scheduled for 20 May, this session was postponed 24 hours due to Rudy Lewis's tragic drug overdose death. Understandably, a spirit of profound gloom filled the studio, and that dark mood bled through on the tracks, particularly "Under The Boardwalk". Mike Leander had arranged the song in Lewis' key; forced to lower his range, Johnny Moore ends up channeling Sam Cooke. The vocal resemblance is nothing less than uncanny. Behind him, the rest of the group drone in mournful call-and-response. The funereal quality of their voices cuts the carefree tone of Artie Resnick's lyrics with a strong tinge of desolation. That weird contrast was probably the key to the record's massive success; The Drifters would never perform this particular urban vignette in exactly the same way again. Sung in the key of G, "He's Just A Playboy" would be the flipside of "Under The Boardwalk's" follow-up single; bouncing back and forth between a fox trot and a baião, this vibes-dominated track lopes along underneath Johnny Moore's chilly lead. The guys chant the chorus Robby The Robot-style, with Johnny Terry's dour bass stabbing the air like an accusatory finger and Charlie Thomas's gruff baritone underscoring the guilty verdict. Then Thomas steps to the mike and pours all his heart into the waltz tempo weeper "I Don't Want To Go On Without You." Obviously, he's singing in tribute to his departed colleague, and his performance sounds so sincere, you can practically see the tears welling up in his eyes. This maudlin masterpiece later caught the attention of The Moody Blues, who covered it and scored a Top Forty UK hit. Heaven knows what it took for The Drifters to pull these performances out of themselves on such a dismal occasion; their grim professionalism salvaged a date that could easily have gone down the tubes.

The Drifters
featuring Johnny Moore
with Abdul Samad, guitar

4 August 1964
A Bert Berns Production
Arranged and Conducted by Teacho Wiltshire
Atlantic Studios, New York City
8057 Sand In My Shoes (Artie Resnick-Kenny Young)
8058 Saturday Night At The Movies (Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil)

Johnny Moore makes with his amazing Sam Cooke impression again on "Sand In My Shoes". Perhaps the most underrated of The Drifters' urban vignettes, it's distinguished by his playfully sexy reading and a sultry mix of castanets and Spanish guitar. Then Bert Berns cranks the baião rhythm up to fever pitch for Mann and Weil's "Saturday Night At The Movies". It's a tune inspired by the NBC television network's popular weekend film series. Kinescopes of The Drifters performing the song live reveal go-go dancers freaking out to its bouncing ball beat!

The Drifters
featuring Johnny Moore

20 October 1964
Arranged and Conducted by Klaus Ogermann
Produced by Jerry Wexler
Atlantic Studios, New York City
8234 Spanish Lace (Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman)

At this point, Jerry Wexler decided to take a more active role in The Drifters' production. It's odd that he didn't try to do so during Rudy Lewis's tenure, given the way he raves about Lewis's talent in his 1993 autobiography; Wexler clearly considered Johnny Moore a lightweight in comparison. Moore may have sensed his snobbish attitude and copped an attitude of his own; his rendition of "Spanish Lace" is colder than a Wisconsin winter! This was an old Barrett Strong track from 1961 that Wexler decided to graft The Drifters' vocals onto. The result is a pretty record that's pretty uninspired, suitable only for a B-side. Gene McDaniels' hit version from 1962 remains the definitive one.

The Drifters
featuring Johnny Moore

22 October 1964
Arranged and Conducted by Richard Wess
Produced by Tom Dowd
Atlantic Studios, New York City
8265 The Christmas Song (Mel Tormé-Robert Wells)
8266 I Remember Christmas
(Florence Davis-Abdul Samad-George Treadwell)

This two-sided Christmas release was an attempt to duplicate the success of the original Drifters' rendition of "White Christmas." It didn't even come close! Richard Wess was a daring arranger, but his chart for "The Christmas Song" is as pedestrian as can be. His backing music for "I Remember Christmas" falls equally flat. Fans no doubt found these rehashed sweet Swing arrangements particularly stale, what with the British Invasion raging in full force. Adding insult to injury, the songs aren't even Latinized! Johnny Moore's readings are adequate, but they leave no lasting impression; singing in his high tenor voice, he sounds disinterested at best.

The Drifters
featuring Johnny Moore

10 November 1964
*Arranged and Conducted by Stan Applebaum
Arranged by Ray Ellis
Conducted by Richard Wess
Produced by Tom Dowd
Atlantic Studios, New York City
8340 Quando, Quando, Quando
(Pat Boone-Tony Renis-Alberto Testa)
8341 I Wish You Love (Charles Trenet-Lee Wilson)
8342 Tonight (Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim)
8343 More (Norman Newell-Riz Ortolani)
8344 What Kind Of Fool Am I? (Leslie Bricusse-Anthony Newley)
8345 The Good Life (Sacha Distel-Jack Reardon)
8346 As Long As She Needs Me (Lionel Bart)
8347 Desafinado (Antonio Carlos Jobim-Milton Mendonça)
8348 Who Can I Turn To? (Leslie Bricusse-Anthony Newley)
8349 San Francisco
(Walter Jurmann-Gus Kahn-Bronislau Kaper)
8350 Temptation (Nacio Herb Brown-Arthur Freed)*
8351 On The Street Where You Live (Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe)

In their entire twelve year existence, The Drifters had never cut a studio album! Albums had been released, of course, but they were always compilations of single sides. George Treadwell suggested it was time Atlantic's flagship vocal group released a stand-alone LP. In the interest of transitioning his chief engineer into A & R work, Jerry Wexler put Tom Dowd in charge of the project; Bert Berns was occupied elsewhere. The sound man's inexperience at handling singers inevitably led to difficulties; an entire session had to be scrapped! The group didn't relate well to Dowd's methods, and they reportedly had trouble warming up to the material. What finally emerged from the chaos was The Good Life, a tasteful collection of Pop standards, most bearing The Drifters' trademark Latin rhythms. More than anything else, the LP is a showcase for Johnny Moore's silky-smooth singing style. He could raise the intensity level when necessary, but more often than not he preferred to come across laid-back and cool. That approach works just fine on lazy tropical ballads like "More", "The Good Life", "I Wish You Love" and "On The Street Where You Live". Surprisingly, it also suffices for danceable bossa nova items like "Desafinado" and "Quando, Quando, Quando". Moore doesn't lack for lung power, though, and he displays it judiciously on the showtunes "Tonight", "As Long As She Needs Me", "Who Can I Turn To?" and "What Kind Of Fool Am I?" Ray Ellis's charts sparkle with Latin Jazz sophistication, but not so much that they distract from his vocal artistry. Unfortunately, the budget ran out before Tom Dowd could complete an even dozen new tracks("San Francisco" was never finished); to compensate, he was forced to salvage "Temptation" from The Drifters' December 1959 session. Johnny Moore wasn't given much time to overdub this frantic pasodoble track, but he certainly rose to the occasion: It's his most dazzling performance on a Drifters side. "Temptation" really shows what his voice was capable of; he sounds like Caruso on steroids! The previously recorded "Saturday Night At The Movies" rounded out the Good Life LP, which logged in at #103 on Billboard's Top Pop Albums listing. It was the group's second highest-charting album; their highest was the compilation Under The Boardwalk at #40.

The Drifters
featuring Johnny Moore
with Abdul Samad, guitar

12 November 1964
A Bert Berns Production
Arranged and Conducted by Teacho Wiltshire
Atlantic Studios, New York City
8323 In The Park (Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil)
8324 At The Club (Gerry Goffin-Carole King)

Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil's "In The Park" was never released, but it ranks with the best of The Drifters' urban vignette records. The habanera is brought front-and-center with foot-stomping emphasis, calling to mind early Frankie Valli + The Four Seasons hits; it's a relentless Latin onslaught designed to propel the stubbornest of wallflowers onto the dance floor. What with Johnny Moore's vocals soaring, the strings swirling, and crisp horn blasts anchoring each verse, this delightful track should've had Atlantic's single pressing plants working overtime. It would've made an ideal follow-up to "At The Club", a wicked Goffin/King cha-cha complete with maraca and gourd percussion; this platter surely had kids dancing holes in their living room rugs, not to mention parroting the lively Cossack yells that the guys break into at the bridge. How a groove so insidious could fall outside Billboard's Top Forty is a complete mystery! At least R & B lovers had the good sense to make "At The Club" a Top Ten favorite. In 1972, British fans would rediscover the track and confer belated million-seller status on it. The woodblock player is distractingly prominent on the mono version, so much so that it makes you think of slapstick sound effects from old Three Stooges films . . . in stereo, he's much better integrated into the mix.

The Drifters
featuring Johnny Moore
with Abdul Samad, guitar

31 December 1964
Arranged and Conducted by Teacho Wiltshire
Produced by Jerry Wexler
Atlantic Studios, New York City
8447 Answer The Phone (Johnny Moore-Jerry Wexler)

Jerry Wexler's second attempt to produce the reconstituted Drifters yielded another forgettable track. Maybe he thought he could get more passion out of Johnny Moore by collaborating with him on a song? If so, he shouldn't have bothered. Moore does inject more life into this performance, but "Answer The Phone" hardly rates the effort. It's nothing but a contrived and gimmicky rewrite of Jerry Butler's 1960 hit "He Don't Love You (Like I Love You)". The arrangement is also a throwback to the past, sounding like something off Ben E. King's first album. This track falls far below The Drifters' usual high standards, and proves that Wexler was wasting his time with them in the studio.

Charlie Thomas
17 March 1965
An Alice In Wonderland Production
Produced by Ted Cooper
Atlantic Studios, New York City
8940 The Outside World (Helen Kelly-Stephen Marcus)

Charlie Thomas, on his own? Evidently so. This record may be listed in The Drifters' discography, but the rest of the group is nowhere to be found on it. Charlie makes the best of his brief solo flight, sinking his teeth into the poor-boy-loves-rich-girl lyric and snarling like a tiger in heat while kettledrums crash, horns blare, fuzz guitars vibrate and vamping voices wail all around him. Essentially a Rock 'n' Roll cha-cha, this fierce little record morphs into a Tijuana Brass-style pasodoble on the instrumental break. Very impressive! Destined for the flipside of "Follow Me", "The Outside World" offers a hint of what The Drifters might've sounded like if Phil Spector had produced them.

The Drifters
featuring Johnny Moore and Charlie Thomas

17 March 1965
A Bert Berns Production
Arranged and Conducted by Bert Keyes
Atlantic Studios, New York City
8745 Looking Through The Eyes Of Love
(Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil)
8746 Follow Me (Kenny Lynch-Mort Shuman)
8747 Chains Of Love (Jimmy Bishop-Kenny Gamble)
8748 Far From The Maddening Crowd (Marlin Greene-Dan Penn)
8749 Come On Over To My Place (Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil)

The bulk of tracks cut at this session appear on the album I'll Take You Where The Music's Playing. That album is The Drifters' best, and the inclusion of these sides explains why. Like Gary Sherman, bandleader Bert Keyes specialized in colorful Latin-flavored arrangements; for "Follow Me", "Chains Of Love" and "Looking Through The Eyes Of Love", he devised a hesitating habanera pattern overlaid with heavy drum fills. For "Come On Over To My Place" and "Far From The Maddening Crowd," he got Bert Berns' session crew swinging hard to the boogaloo, a sledgehammer backbeat derived from the cha-cha-chá. From a rhythmic standpoint, these are arguably the most danceable numbers in The Drifters' catalog. From a vocal standpoint, Johnny Moore and Charlie Thomas (who sings lead on "Chains Of Love") really belt out their parts. From a song standpoint, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil outdid themselves writing the splendid "Looking Through The Eyes Of Love", a compelling ode to love's power to trump misfortune. For some unfathomable reason, The Drifters' original version stayed in the can; a few months later, Gene Pitney did justice to the tune, but Johnny Moore's fabulous reading raises it to a higher level. The other standout from this date is "Far From The Maddening Crowd," whose title was inspired by Thomas Hardy's acclaimed 1912 novel Far From The Madding Crowd. With its cast-of-thousands thematic sweep, this song deserved to be in a movie, preferably a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza! Soon after wrapping this record date, The Drifters embarked on a whirlwind tour of Great Britain. Their popularity was starting to wane at home, but they were pleased to discover an avid following in the UK. The group was especially revered by Mods, an important youth-based cultural force. That adulation would endure and prove advantageous to them in a few more years.

The Drifters
featuring Johnny Moore
with Jeff Barry, tambourine

30 June 1965
A Bert Berns Production
Arranged and Conducted by Gene Page
Produced by Bert Berns and Jeff Barry
Atlantic Studios, New York City
9078 I'll Take You Where The Music's Playing
(Jeff Barry-Ellie Greenwich)
9079 Nylon Stockings (Tony Bruno-Vic Millrose)
9080 We Gotta Sing! (Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil)

At this session, another exceptional batch of tunes was committed to tape. All three sides feature the dynamic boogaloo rhythm that had begun to sweep Latin New York and R & B music centers around the country. Barry and Greenwich's "I'll Take You Where The Music's Playing" tells the same story as Mann and Weil's "I'll Take You Home", but in reverse: Instead of offering to drive the jilted girl home from a dance, the best friend promises to take her out dancing. This hip-swaying ditty became the title track of the group's next-to-last Atlantic compilation album. However, just like The Drifters' last three singles, it fell short of Billboard's Top Forty. George Treadwell surely wasn't pleased! He wanted to start booking The Drifters into upscale venues, and rockers that stalled mid-chart were counter-productive to his plans. "Nylon Stockings" didn't chart at all, but the song was probably more to his liking. Despite being rather risqué (anybody got a stockings fetish?), its sophisticated sound made for ideal supper club fare. Superbly orchestrated by Gene Page, and dripping with romantic angst à la Danielle Steele, this image-rich torch ballad plays out like a climactic movie scene. How could it have bombed so badly? The single should've ruled Adult-Contemporary radio. Its flipside deserved attention, too: "We Gotta Sing" is a vocal group anthem waiting to be discovered. Cynthia Weil's brilliant lyric captures the dreams, determination and naïveté of millions of would-be Drifters, hungry for a shot at the big time and ripe for exploitation by predatory managers: There's a club in town/We know it's just a dive/But we hang out there/'Cause they let us sing/When the band takes five/And just last night this guy came in/Smoking fifty-cent cigars/And he said for only 10%/He's gonna make us stars! Johnny Moore's rousing lead puts the song across like gangbusters; Charlie Thomas and the rest of the guys bring up the rear, belting out the chorus with hearty enthusiasm. This is Broadway musical-calibre songwriting!

The Drifters
featuring Johnny Moore and Charlie Thomas

27 January 1966
A Bert Berns Production
Arranged and Conducted by Artie Butler
Atlantic Studios, New York City
9880 Up In The Streets Of Harlem (Bert Berns)
9881 Memories Are Made Of This
(Richard Dehr-Terry Gilkyson-Frank Miller)
9882 You Can't Love Them All
(Bert Berns-Ahmet Ertegun-Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller)

Bert Berns gave The Drifters' version of Dean Martin's 1955 chart-topper a spicy Mexican makeover. The group sounds marvelous with a phalanx of mariachi horns backing them up! Atlantic should've commissioned a Spanish-language version, because this jumping bean of a tango ranchera had potential to become a solid smash in Latin America. Predictably though, Pop radio gave it short shrift; it was two years into the British Invasion, and programmers now saw The Drifters as a group past its prime. Yet even with the charts clogged with imitation Beatles and Motown knockoffs, "Memories Are Made Of This" almost penetrated the Top Forty. Had this single hit the market in, say, 1962, it no doubt would've matched the sales of "Up On The Roof" or "Under The Boardwalk". Not so "Up In The Streets Of Harlem", Bert Berns' belated attempt to write a Civil Rights anthem. To the accompaniment of an militaristic march-time beat, The Drifters sing: Oh, baby!/Don't turn your back on me, I'm leavin'/I've got to fight for what I believe in/Don't want no more of hate and grievin'/You know that I love you/But I'm goin' away . . . it sounds like they're headed off to fight in the Spanish Civil War! SNCC volunteers wouldn't have been caught dead singing a stilted song like this. That said, the guys do treat it seriously, especially Johnny Moore; in fact, his solemn delivery damn near makes the pompous lyrics believable. He put so much feeling into the song, it must've been a blow for him to learn that deejays were flipping the record over. They were playing Charlie Thomas' rendition of "You Can't Love Them All" instead! That made no sense at all. True, Solomon Burke did record the tune first, and it does boast a distinguished list of composers, but let's be blunt: It's a silly trifle that wasn't even worthy of B-side exposure. To be sure, it went nowhere fast, sputtering to a dead stop at #127 after a solitary week on the charts.

The Drifters
featuring Johnny Moore

8 February 1966
A Bert Berns Production
Arranged and Conducted by Artie Butler
Atlantic Studios, New York City
9912 My Islands In The Sun (Johnny Moore-Abdul Samad)

The Drifters' latest audio vignette exchanges the usual urban setting for a tropical climate. Johnny Moore co-wrote "Islands" with guitarist Abdul Samad, but unlike "Answer The Phone", this is an altogether decent tune. Artie Butler sets it rocking to riotous Calypso music, and the guys sound like they're having big fun on a Caribbean cruise. During the height of early '60s Folk music mania, this flipside of "Memories Are Made Of This" might've made an excellent topside; however, by the mid-60s, such blatant Harry Belafonte stylings came across like yesterday's news.

The Drifters
featuring Johnny Moore and Charlie Thomas
with Abdul Samad, guitar, and Jeff Barry, tambourine

26 July 1966
A Bert Berns Production
Arranged and Conducted by Jeff Barry
Produced by Bert Berns and Jeff Barry
Atlantic Studios, New York City
10544 It Takes A Good, Good Woman (Jeff Barry)
10545 Aretha (Jeff Barry-Bert Berns)

This was the last date Bert Berns would supervise. In 1964, he'd launched two record labels, Bang and Shout; they'd since become successful, and their day-to-day operations were claiming more and more of his time. Jeff Barry was working at Bang/Shout, too, cutting sessions with a promising new artist named Neil Diamond. The unreleased song from this session, "It Takes A Good, Good Woman"(spiritedly sung by Charlie Thomas), was actually written for another Bang artist named Gayle Haness. So both Berns and Barry were on their way out the door, and they had reason to leave quickly: Berns had recently backed out of a distribution agreement he'd made with Atlantic. The soured deal rankled Jerry Wexler, prompting him to dissolve his friendship with Bert. Yet when this final session rolled around, he came to it brandishing a sense of humor. Listen closely to the lyrics of "Aretha", and that sense of humor becomes apparent. Aretha Franklin wasn't as famous in 1966 as she later became, but she was well-known in music circles; there's no question that the Drifters song bearing her name is about her. Or, rather, addressed to her. Over a thumping rocksteady beat, Johnny Moore entreats her to Come down/Run down to me/Run, run, Aretha, run! As it happened, Jerry Wexler was then in negotiations to bring the Gospel music veteran to Atlantic Records. Under his direction, Berns and Barry evidently wrote (or rewrote) this song as a tongue-in-cheek invitation to Lady Soul. Wexler's little joke was infectious enough to chart, but had he promoted it as an A-side, Ms. Franklin might've found it a wee bit tacky. "Aretha" ended up gracing the flipside of a later recording, the Eric Gale-produced "Baby, What I Mean". Years later, British deejays rediscovered the disc and made it a cult favorite on the Northern Soul dance club circuit.

Preoccupied with Rock band signings and Memphis Soul acts, Altantic executives let The Drifters wither on the vine after Bert Berns' departure. In 1967, rumors circulated that George Treadwell had groomed another set of replacement members, and was on the verge of another mass firing! However, he died suddenly that same year, and whatever plans he had for the group died with him. 

Saddled with a succession of one-shot producers including Ronnie Savoy, Syl Johnson, Lou Courtney and Swamp Dogg, they soon disappeared from the American charts. Fortunately, Faye Treadwell took over the group's management. When their contract with Atlantic Records expired in 1972, she relocated them to England, where their fan base was still strong. 

Ms. Treadwell got The Drifters signed to Bell Records UK and assembled a battery of top British producers to revive their recording career. A string of European smashes resulted: "Like Sister And Brother", "Kissin' In The Back Row Of The Movies", "Down On The Beach Tonight", "There Goes My First Love", "You're More Than A Number In My Little Red Book", and others. These records were derivative, most of them thinly-disguised rewrites of the group's American triumphs. Nevertheless, they sold like hotcakes to a public hungry for '60s nostalgia. In 1975, Bell UK issued a double-length compilation album called 24 Original Hits that mixed oldies with recent successes; it topped the British charts for an amazing 34 weeks, and established The Drifters once and for all as Habanera Rock royalty.

Johnny Moore led various permutations of the group until his untimely death on New Year's Eve, 1998; he lived long enough to see himself, Ben E. King, Charlie Thomas, Rudy Lewis, Clyde McPhatter and all the other Drifters personnel* inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. Of the '60s lead singers, only King and Thomas survive. However, all of their awesome studio recordings survive on tape. 

The most comprehensive Drifters reissue is a seven CD series called The Definitive Drifters Anthology, released on the British Sequel label in 1996. It's been out of print for a while, but hopefully some enterprising reissue outfit will see fit to reformulate those CDs into a box set. The producers will want to dig up lost stereo masters like those for "Sometimes I Wonder", "Land Of Make-Believe" and "Rat Race", as well as do first-time stereo mixes of non-LP singles like "Nylon Stockings", "We Gotta Sing", "Aretha" and "Memories Are Made Of This." Of course, copious liner notes will be in order, featuring interviews with surviving associates like Burt Bacharach, Carole King and Jeff Barry. These people aren't getting any younger, so the work had better start soon!

At some point, there definitely should be a Drifters musical, and a Hollywood biopic wouldn't be a bad idea, either. There's no other Pop group that's more deserving of such honors, and nobody who knows Rock 'n' Roll history could disagree with that assessment: They may not have known a clave from a click track in the beginning, but there's no doubt about it:  The Drifters were, and are, the most important Habanera Rock act of all-time.


*Between 1959 and 1966, Drifters members included William Brent, Danny Danbridge, Tommy Evans, George Grant, Dock Green, Elsbeary Hobbs, Eugene Pearson, James Poindexter, Johnny Terry and William Van Dyke.

Excerpt from "We Gotta Sing", music by Barry Mann, lyrics by Cynthia Weil,
 © copyright 1965 Screen Gems-EMI Music (BMI)

Excerpt from "Up In The Streets Of Harlem", words and music by Bert Berns,
 © copyright 1966 Sloopy II Music/Sony/ATV Songs/Wren Music (BMI)

Dedicated to Stan Applebaum, Jeff Barry, 
Burt Bacharach, Artie Butler, Ray Ellis, Bert Keyes, 
Mike Leander, Klaus Ogermann, Gene Page, 
Gary Sherman, Richard Wess and Teacho Wiltshire, whose "Beat Concerto" arrangements put Latin romance into The Drifters' music.

1 comment:

Jerry Maneker said...

This is absolutely superb! How you know such details, and the beauty in which you craft the posts, are nothing short of remarkable. Just hearing the name, "Clyde McPhatter" brought back a flood of memories, as I haven't heard his name in almost 50 years. Thanks so much for this reminiscence, and a history which you make come alive.